Northern Utah CSI units learn how to uses metal detectors

Friday , May 20, 2016 - 7:32 AM

By MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner staff

“Beep. Dig. Look.”

To hear Monte Berry talk, it all sounds so deceptively simple. But as about 30 crime-scene investigators from northern Utah learned on Wednesday, operating a metal detector can be complicated.

So complicated that even though most CSI units in the area own one or two of the machines, few know how to operate them properly. A local metal detecting group aimed to change all that on Wednesday.

Trails West Artifact Society, an Ogden-based metal detecting club, brought in expert detectorist Monte Berry to teach law enforcement how to use detectors to find metallic evidence.

The day-long “CSI Metal Detector Training” class was part of the annual spring conference of the Utah Chapter of the International Association for Identification, which bills itself as the world’s largest and oldest forensic science identification group. On Tuesday, CSI teams from around northern Utah honed their arson investigation techniques. On Wednesday, they turned their attention to metal detecting.

When it comes to criminal investigations, metal detecting can be a useful tool. Many of the weapons that bad guys use — guns, bullets, knives, etc. — are made of metal, so when investigators are trying to locate bullet casings to determine how many shots were fired, or looking for a weapon a suspect may have discarded or buried, something to detect that metal can be their best friend.

However, few investigators are trained in the use of such devices. Sandra Grogan, Weber Metro CSI supervisor, documents the extent of her knowledge on the subject: “We have a metal detector. It’s old. It beeps.”

As a result, Grogan says when a law enforcement agency asks her office to detect for metal, “We cringe.”

Weber County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Lane Findlay, an amateur detectorist himself, acknowledges that detecting can be difficult.

“These machines are complicated,” he said. “You don’t just turn them on and start sweeping.”

Dave Stuart, a member of Trails West, said Grogan contacted him one day last year, saying her department had a metal detector but didn’t know how to use it, asking if be willing to train them.

“I guess it was about time they learned how to use their equipment,” Stuart said with a smile.

Originally, the metal detector training was just going to be for Weber Metro CSI, but Grogan says that after asking around, she learned that plenty of other departments in northern Utah didn’t know how to use their metal detectors, either.

So Trails West brought in Ogden native Berry, who now lives in Vale, Oregon. Berry built his first metal detector from a kit back in 1965 and is considered an expert on the subject — manufacturers often send him their prototypes, asking him to field test them and offer his input.

Berry, who used to work in law enforcement, was happy to help with the class. He knows there are plenty of misconceptions about metal detectors.

“It’s a tool. That’s all it is, a tool for work,” Berry said. “When you watch ‘CSI’ on TV, they’re using a cheap detector, they’re holding it six to eight inches off the ground, and the ‘beep-beep-beep’ sound is dubbed in — detectors don’t even sound like that. People get the wrong idea from seeing this stuff on TV. They just need to know how to use it.”

On Wednesday, following a morning of classroom instruction by Berry, the class of about 30 moved to Stuart’s large yard in the Ogden foothills. There, members of the Trails West Artifact Society had salted the ground with hundreds of items investigators might come across in an actual investigation — bullets, shell casings, old hammers, a tire iron, a screwdriver filed to a point, old metal toy guns and starter pistols.

Class members received hands on instruction from volunteer detectorists as they swept the yard looking for “evidence.”

Amanda Allred works in property and evidence for the Unified Police Department in Salt Lake County. While the classroom work was informative, it was the afternoon fieldwork that really helped.

“It’s definitely better to get out here and do it hands on,” Allred said.

Brittany Nelson, a crime scene technician with the Salt Lake City Police Department, says the training is appreciated — and long overdue.

“A lot of agencies were just muddling through with their metal detectors, make the best of what they have,” she said.

Holly Arguello, president of the Utah International Association for Identification, said metal detectors are useful to finding casings and firearms at crime scenes, but that they just haven’t had much training at it.

“We could be using it a lot more, if we knew how,” she said.

Crime scene technician Rachael Gruis, with SLCPD, says she works the graveyard shift, which means she usually doesn’t have the advantage of a well-lit crime scene.

“We do get quite a few shots fired, and finding all the casings is difficult in bad lighting conditions,” she said. “This will help.”

The Weber County Sheriff’s Office just bought two new metal detectors, for which it paid about $300 to $400 each.

“They’re not top of the line, but they’re better than what we had before,” Grogan said.

And now, with the help of the class, Grogan said investigators will be better able to operate the equipment.

“Monte is give us a good baseline of training,” she said. “Not just how to use it, but how it works, too.”

Grogan says her department uses a metal detector maybe a dozen or more times a year — not enough to become proficient at it.

“We’re just upgrading our technology and our training,” Jason Romney said, a crime scene investigator with Weber County.

Brian Marley, a deputy with the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, said what’s difficult is that they don’t use metal detectors every day, so they just do the best they can.

“We’ve used a metal detector at crime scenes before and had success,” Marley said. “But we’ve also had places we thought we should find something and we didn’t. At least this (training) lets us know if we’re doing it right.”

Grogan agrees.

“We’ve had good luck finding things at crime scenes with the metal detectors, but I worry about the things we might have missed because we were doing it wrong,” she said.

Stuart says his metal detecting group has gotten calls from law enforcement agencies in the past, asking for help with searches at crime scenes. He says they’re happy to help, but also glad investigators will now be able to confidently do it on their own.

Stuart recalls once being called in to search for a gun suspects had thrown from a vehicle.

“We didn’t find the gun, but we did find a metal Band-Aid box stuffed with marijuana and other drugs,” Stuart said. “We gave that to police.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×